‘Watermelon Stomach’: Silly name, serious problem

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‘Watermelon Stomach’: Silly name, serious problem

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Have you ever heard of the medical condition of Watermelon Stomach? Most people haven’t. It even sounds silly. A name like that cannot be taken seriously. It doesn’t have the same gut-wrenching reaction that “cancer” has, so how could a person possibly die from a condition associated with watermelon?

My maternal great-grandmother passed away with what one rural northern Illinois doctor termed, “Watermelon Stomach.” It appeared to this doctor that a watermelon had grown within her stomach. Instead, she was just bloated. Now, we can look back and see how she most likely suffered from celiac disease: a disease where one’s body cannot process gluten — wheat, barely, rye — and its immune system attacks the body. Therefore, Watermelon Stomach is inflammation of the stomach and digestive track for those not diagnosed with celiac disease.

My great-grandmother was not the only one suffering from a gluten problem. I would be considered gluten-intolerant, on my way to having celiac disease. Out of caution and personal experience, I eat gluten-free to ward off potential celiac disease, which runs in my family.

Everyone on my mother’s side has symptoms of a gluten-intolerance similar to celiac disease. My great-aunt was officially diagnosed with celiac disease. Two of my great uncles passed away from health complications, almost positively derived from not being diagnosed with celiac disease.

My grandma, aunt and mom have all complained about joint pain, immune-system problems and digestive issues. After eating gluten-free, my grandma was allowed to reduce her diabetes medicine from 1000 mg to 250 mg each day, due to improving health. Several doctors informed my mom that she would develop lupus or MS soon, but she never did.

Before I was gluten-free, I experienced painful, weak joints, especially in my knees. No amount of painkillers could reduce the pain. Covered in an ice pack, my knees would ache without relief. Migraines were a frequent occurrence, as well. Furthermore, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue after having mononucleosis active in my body for more than six months during my sophomore year of high school. My immune system, exhausted by my gluten intake, often failed to protect me from any passing common cold or virus.

Previously, my mom attempted a gluten-free lifestyle in 2008, but gluten-free products and restaurant options hardly existed. Six years later, this “fad” has risen exponentially in popularity. On Feb. 1, 2014, my mom committed to it once again. A week later, so did I.

My boyfriend had planned a Valentine’s Day date to go ice skating at an outdoor rink. I loved ice skating, but each time it brought such pain to my knees. My mom promised that I would feel a difference within a week, but I was not so sure it would happen that quickly. However, in merely seven days without gluten, my knees didn’t buckle or ache the entire evening. He was shocked that we didn’t have to leave early and that I didn’t have to ice my knees afterward. From then on, I have been a huge proponent of the gluten-free lifestyle.

On a daily basis, I prepare gluten-free foods, eat at restaurants with gluten-free offerings and use other gluten-free products. As I adapt and adhere to this lifestyle, I can offer my experience: tried and true or attempted and failed. I have scoured gluten-free blogs, websites and stores. Mostly, the lifestyle consists of meat or other protein, fruits, vegetables and dairy. We can get our grains from other sources, such as rice.

The gluten-free lifestyle varies from person to person. Some people are not bothered by using shampoo with wheat filler. I, however, do react. My grandma eats gluten-free, but she was at first unaware of how many products have wheat filler in them. When my mom and I aided her in a kitchen gluten purge, we found that her beef bouillon contained wheat. We dumped it. Of course, a mainstream, flour-based product would contain wheat flour, but this was a product that wouldn’t necessitate wheat.

It’s all about learning. Because it is healthier, she tends to eat purely meat/proteins, fruit, vegetables and dairy. My little brother gets replacement gluten-free foods so that he doesn’t feel left out at a cake-and-ice-cream birthday party. Everyone has their own way of dealing with gluten, there is not just one.

Being gluten free means I get strange facial contortions, pitying eyes, disbelief — all rolled into one unattractive reaction. Patience is a virtue, my mom says. It can be trying for the fifth time in a month to explain to someone why I can’t eat the snack someone brought. Responses range from: “I’m so glad that you care about your health so much,” to “I am SO sorry,” to “Does a little bit really hurt all that much?” to “Are you trying to lose weight? Isn’t it just a fad diet?”

At a touch over 100 pounds, I guarantee it is not for losing weight. Eating gluten-free is not a fad for those with celiac disease and gluten-intolerance. For those who must be gluten-free for their health, this mindset is dangerous. Waiters and chefs who follow this constricted thought path are less likely to be careful about providing gluten-free food options, resulting in that person feeling exceedingly ill. Some people do choose to eat gluten-free without having the health concern, but not the majority.

Even though my annoyances continue, I still feel like it’s an important issue to discuss. It’s not talked about as much as it should be. But when it is, I am generally met with genuine curiosity. That is a wonderful place to start. Health is a significant reason to talk about this so-called “fad diet.” If one person avoids further health complications, then that is progress.

The Celiac Disease Foundation estimates that 2.5 million Americans are under diagnosed for celiac disease. Yet, that estimate does not include those with gluten-intolerance. Research by the SIGEP Study Group for Autoimmune Disorders in Celiac Disease shows that people have a greater chance of further health concerns the longer they go undiagnosed. And this concern must spread throughout those with and those without celiac disease or gluten-intolerance.

In my gluten-free life, I have the responsibility to keep this gluten-free dialogue progressing.

I hope for a world where the only case of Watermelon Stomach is when you accidentally swallow a seed while enjoying a delicious summer treat.